Philip Kitcher is the John Dewey Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University in New York, specializing in the history of science. He also holds a chair in Contemporary Civilization and teaches courses on James Joyce. Philip is a past president of the American Philosophical Association and was the first recipient of its Prometheus Prize for achievements in the philosophy of science. Along with Dan Dennett, he’s one of the two philosophers of science I find consistently cogent, readable, and thought-provoking.
In a recent issue of The New Republic (TNR), Philip wrote a critique of scientists’ unwarranted denigration of the humanities and unjustified extension into that sphere: “The trouble with scientism: why history and the humanities are also a form of knowledge.“ I posted some criticisms of that piece on this site, and there ensued an email exchange between us. We realized that while we agree on most things, there were still a few points to iron out. Philip then sent me the following mini-essay with permission to post it here. My own response follows his.
WHAT RESISTING SCIENTISM IS NOT
My essay, “The Trouble with Scientism”, has aroused a number of responses. It has made me some unlikely allies, and, at the same time, has apparently frustrated some people whom I take to be my intellectual kin. So perhaps it is worth explaining just what I said and what I didn’t say.
One of the things I didn’t mention was religion. Oddly, though, some of my readers have supposed that, in defending the humanities and the arts, I was making a space for “special ways of knowing”, hence, perhaps, for special ways of religious knowing. This is puzzling: why should anyone think that the areas of human inquiry whose virtues I sing are routes to knowledge of gods, spirits, or any other sort of transcendent realm? It is not as though my writings have been entirely silent about the supernatural. The last chapter of Living with Darwin argues that areas of the humanities and social sciences (whose contributions “The Trouble with Scientism” champions) play an important role in debunking the thought that any of the world’s religions provides knowledge of any supernatural being. I do hold open the possibility that future inquiry might eventually disclose something we might recognize as “transcendent” – I don’t think it likely, but inquiry has surprised us before – although allowing that is consistent with my certainty that no extant religion tells us anything about the subject. Unlike some contemporary atheists, I recognize the contributions of those religions that are not primarily doctrinal, but founded in commitment to important values (see my essays “Challenges for Secularism” and “Militant Modern Atheism”). Nothing in my defense of the humanities contradicts any of these positions, nor, for that matter, supports them further.
I also didn’t mention any particular targets – and this has induced the thought that I am attacking a straw man. In fact, scientism is alive and well and living all over the place (talk to any random sample of scientists or readers of science books for a general audience, and you’ll find some champions of the positions “The Trouble with Scientism” attributes). But perhaps it’s easier to name names. Despite my enormous admiration for E.O. Wilson as an advocate of sane conservation policies, and especially as the premier scholar of all time on the social insects, his writings, from Sociobiology on frequently defend scientism. Similarly, a philosopher I greatly like and respect, Alex Rosenberg, has devoted a recent book (The Atheist’s Guide to Reality) to an explicit defense of scientism.
My intellectual ally Jerry Coyne develops a related objection. Allegedly my defense of humanities and the social sciences succeeds, to the extent it does, because the areas I point to deploy “the scientific method”. (People like Rosenberg and Wilson probably disagree: they think these areas would be radically improved if they got scientific.) Much depends on what Jerry thinks this problematic phrase means. One possibility is to say that the method involves using uncontroversial human capacities: perception, memory, inference. f that’s the view, the notion of “science” is so thin that the declaration that “science” is the only way of knowing is trivial – surely all human knowledge is obtained by using the capacities human beings have, and Coyne and I agree on the list. A slightly more ambitious view is that the scientific method consists in framing hypotheses and testing them against evidence. Depending on your ideas about what a hypothesis is, and what counts as evidence, you could see historians, anthropologists, and even dramatists, painters, and composers as doing this. My view is that, if you stretch the notion of hypothesis-testing in this way, the thesis again becomes trivial. If you don’t, you debar important modes of human knowledge.
During the past few decades the detailed study of different areas of natural science has convinced historians and philosophers of science that any common “method” is extremely thin. The methodology practitioners acquire is very different in particle physics or genetics or earth science or psychology. If you add cultural anthropology, social history, econometrics and creative writing to the mix, the idea of some shared “method” (one discovered in the seventeenth century??) is strained indeed. Introducing some allegedly universal “scientific method” that covers all respectable inquiry is simply a way of muddying the issues.
Jerry also overlooks a major contribution to knowledge furnished by the social sciences, the humanities and the arts. Knowledge is sometimes advanced not by arriving at some new true statement, but by reframing concepts. As my essay argues, particular kinds of history and anthropology are very good at generating this sort of cognitive advance (besides the people I mention, think of Levi-Strauss, Clifford Geertz, Natalie Zemon Davis, and Carlo Ginzburg). The same can be said for poetry, drama, fiction, visual art, and music. The great artists teach us to see the world differently, to divide it up in new ways. That sometimes has profound consequences for our ways of living (witness my opening example) – and it sometimes affects the ways in which the sciences are practiced.
Perhaps in 2012, it’s worth ending with a recommendation, especially for those associated with the University of Chicago. This year is the fiftieth anniversary of a book that celebrated the role of history to change images, a book that also argued for the importance of reconceptualization and recategorization (sometimes stimulated by the arts, humanities, and social sciences) at moments of large scientific change. Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions is both a sensitive discussion of the achievements of the sciences, and a powerful antidote to the oversimplifications that fuel scientism. Its lessons have, apparently, still not been thoroughly learned.
Let me first apologize if I gave the impression that Philip was, by critiquing scientism, somehow promoting religion as an alternate “way of knowing.” Philip makes clear in his essay that he doesn’t believe that, and has always pointed out the deficiencies of faith in that respect. He is, I think, an unbeliever himself. The reason I went after religion in my original piece was not to criticize Philip, but because the “scientism” card is played much more often by religious people than by philosophers or scholars in the humanities. Nearly all of the attacks on scientism I have seen have one intent: by showing that science has its limits, and grapples with questions inappropriate to the discipline—the so-called “why” questions—this validates the idea that there is another way of answering those questions. That way is, of course, religion. But religion never has and never will answer those “why” questions, because there’s no way of checking whether any answer is correct. But that is my bete noire, not Philip’s.
So let us take up the areas where, according to Philip, scientism truly does reign: in the attitude of scientists toward the social sciences and the humanities—especially the arts. He gives some names of those who are guilty of this practice: Alex Rosenberg and Ed Wilson. While I agree with Philip about Wilson, who once said that evolutionary biology would ingest all of the humanities, I also tend to agree with most of what Alex says. He states his views strongly and forcefully, and when you do that about things like free will you’re bound to suffer. But I don’t find Rosenberg’s writings invidious, nor do I see him as completely dismissing the value of the humanities. (It’s been a while since I read his latest book,The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, so I may have forgotten). But in my experience (granted, this is anecdotal), many scientists do recognize the value of the humanities, and certainly appreciate the endeavors of historians, Biblical scholars, and archaeologists. In general, I find scientists are more conversant about art, music, and literature than most humanities scholars are about science. And many scientists love the arts; it should be obvious from this website that I am among them.
Further, I don’t see, as apparently Philip does, a wholesale drive on the part of scientists to wrest money from the already-impoverished humanities. But then Philip and I have had different experiences.
And I agree with Philip that yes, some spheres of the humanities, namely the social sciences, do give us a way to find knowledge. They do it by using the same techniques as do “real” scientists: observation, experimentation, testing of hypothesis and predictions, rational inquiry, and doubt. In fact, I have long called things like social science, history, Biblical scholarship (as opposed to theology), and archaeology “science broadly conceived.” In fact, I have said that even things like car mechanics and plumbing could be considered forms of science, for when fixing electrical problems or finding leaks, mechanics and plumbers use scientific inquiry.
Philip objects to my extension of science, saying:
One possibility is to say that the method involves using uncontroversial human capacities: perception, memory, inference. If that’s the view, the notion of “science” is so thin that the declaration that “science” is the only way of knowing is trivial – surely all human knowledge is obtained by using the capacities human beings have, and Coyne and I agree on the list.
Well, I’m happy to reframe things like archaeology, history, and detection of leaks as “the use of secular reason,” and reserve the label “science” for “things done by scientists.” It doesn’t matter to me. What is important is to draw a distinction between those ways of knowing that employ secular reason and the tools of science (the ones I’ve listed) and those “ways of knowing” that rely only on revelation, dogma and authority—i.e., superstition and religion. It’s important to realize that religious people often claim that their methods are also ways of knowing, providing a portion of “all human knowledge” via “the capacities human beings have.” In that sense, Philip is wrongly implying that I include religion as a form of “science.” After all, revelation involves perception, memory, and inference, too.
Here are a few quotes showing that theologians and believers really do think that religion can uncover objective truths about nature—often in the same way as science:
“The second mistake is about religion. The question of truth is as central to its concern as it is in science. Religious belief can guide one in life or strengthen one at the approach of death, but unless it is actually true it can do neither of these things and so would amount to no more than an illusionary exercise in comforting fantasy. . . .”
“Both science and religion are part of the great human quest for truthful understanding. . . . The claim will be that both are seeking truth through the attainment of well-motivated beliefs.” —two above quotes from John Polkinghorne
“On the contrary, religion is about the deepest of all realities. . . religion, to anyone who takes it seriously, is about what is Most Real.” –John Haught
“Both [science and theology] continue in the quest for truth. Both continue to make claims and argue for them. A kind of alliance of stubborn truth-seeking is formed here.” —Anna Case-Winters
“Just as scientific instruments are tested before being used in a laboratory, this ‘instrument’ for detecting the presence and activity of the Spirit of God might be validated for future first-order research on spiritual subjects. Thus we could have scientific evidence for the reliability of religious experience.”—Nancey Murphey
It’s important, then, to realize that the faithful, both regular believers and theologians, often claim that faith is indeed a way of knowing—and one comparable to science. But their methods differ from those of historians, philosophers, archaeologists, and scientists. The “methods” of faith are not reliable ways to gain knowledge.
But I digress. Like me, Philip doesn’t define science in either of his pieces. It’s hard for me to do that, since I see science as essentially continuous with things like history and archaeology. I see science not as an area of inquiry that depends on a prescribed “scientific method”: as Philip and others note, there is no one “scientific method.” Science can proceed via induction or deduction, experiment or observation, or any manner of rational inquiry that produces reliable (i.e. generally verifiable and reproducible) knowledge. I prefer to think of science as an attitude rather than a method: a respect for the truth about nature and a determination to wrest that truth from obscurity by using methods that, according to most rational people, reveal what’s out there.
Philip makes much of the different ways that different sciences approach “truth.” I agree that there is such diversity, but it means little to me so long as those methods respect honest inquiry, doubt, and the susceptibility of provisional “truths” to replication by independent observers. I don’t see what that has to do with scientism.
I want to make just two other points. First, Philip complained to me, in our email exchange, that I had neglected his emphasis on the value of the humanities in “formulating concepts”—presumably scientific ones. As he said, concepts and hypotheses do not originate de novo, but always in a social milieu. And perhaps some of those concepts were helped along by things like the arts (Philip mentions “poetry, drama, fiction, visual art” and music”). Sadly, he doesn’t provide a single scientific concept that was formulated with the inspiration of the arts, but I’m prepared to believe that they could be, at least in principle. Suppose Kekulé had hit on the structure of the benzene ring by looking at a painting of a ring of monkeys holding onto each other’s tails, instead of, as the story goes, seeing that image in a dream. Then yes, the arts would have helped with concept formation. Or suppose that Darwin, inspired by the beauty of the landscape during his famous carriage ride, came up with his “principle of divergence” (I’m making that up). Then science would again have been promoted by non-scientific ruminations.
But so what? Those ruminations must still be tested by empirical observation, reason, and experiment. “Concept formation” is not a way of knowing, but a way of stimulating the confection of hypotheses. Those hypotheses become knowledge only when one applies the methods of science or secular reason.
In the opening example of his TNR essay, Philip uses the bombing of Dresden as an example of how the humanities (moral philosophy) lead to some kind of “knowledge.” But, I submit, realizing that bombing Dresden was immoral is not knowledge in any scientific sense (or even the car-mechanic sense), but a subjective judgment. Sam Harris nonwithstanding, I don’t think there’s any such thing as an objective morality: there are only things that conform to a morality that rests on subjective values (in Sam’s case, it is good to maximize well being). So no, it was not objectively immoral to bomb Dresden: it was immoral if you accept the premise—as nearly all of us do—that it is usually wrong to inflict unnecessary death and injury on innocent civilians in wartime (there is still the question of the inevitable and unplanned collateral damage that occurs in any war). Morality is not the same thing as the knowledge that science produces, though science can of course inform morality (e.g., finding out when fetuses appear to be sentient), and philosophy can help us arrive at sound moral conclusions (e.g., morality cannot come from God unless you believe that anything God deems as moral, however repugnant, is moral).
So I don’t see the humanities as of tremendous value in the formation of concepts that lead to real “knowledge,” though they could in principle inspire concepts. It would help if Philip had provided more examples.
Second, what about the arts: music, literature, and painting? Do those provide “knowledge”? As I’ve said before, they can inspire the acquisition of knowledge, but I don’t see them as ways of knowing in themselves. The arts are ways of communicating feelings between people, of affirming our common humanity, of making us see things in different ways. But nobody has satisfied me that the arts actually provide real truths about the world in ways that don’t need verification by empirical observation. This argument has gone on and on, and some will disagree. Some, like Nick Matzke, think that the arts contain “truth” (his example is Handel’s Messiah). Well, perhaps the arts can convey truth that was already known by secular reason, but I’m not yet convinced that they themselves are ways of finding out anything.
In the end, I’m not sure how serious the charge of “scientism” really is. Philip gives few examples, either in his TNR piece or the essay above. Yes, some scientists occasionally overreach, claiming that, for instance, human social interactions will one day be reducible to molecular motions (they must certainly be consistent with molecular motions, but of course also demand methods of inquiry distinct from those of physics). But my experience is that few scientists are guilty of this. Nor do I see pervasive dismissal of the humanities by scientists, and I certainly don’t hear scientists constantly denigrating archaeology, Biblical scholarship, or history.
I’d prefer to see the word “scientism” quietly shelved, replaced by more specific charges like “scientists sometimes overreach themselves” or “scientists denigrate the value of literature.” Those, at least, are charges that can be documented and discussed using evidence. The general charge of “scientism,” slippery of definition, can’t be. And worst of all, that charge is leveled most often by religious people, whose own methods of knowing are wholly incapable of conveying truth. But that is my issue, not Philip’s.